How hard is getting around town in Boston?

These days, it can be a journey. Heavy car traffic and a transit system beset by decades of neglect mean getting from one place to another is harder and more time-consuming than it could be.

For answers about the future of Boston's transit system, we can look to its past, said Stephen Beaucher, curator of a new historical exhibition and author of the book "Boston in Transit."

"Getting Around Town: Four Centuries of Mapping Boston in Transit," an exhibit at the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map & Education Center, traces the history of public transit in Boston, showing how the city’s transportation network — from the creation of the nation's first underground subway in the 1800s to the formation of the MBTA in the 1960s — shaped the city.

It goes all the way back to the early days of transit in 1630, when public ferries first launched for colonists in the area.

A man in a black short-sleeved, button-down shirt stands in front of a sign reading "Getting Around Town: Four Centuries of Mapping Boston in Transit."
Steven Beuacher, editor and curator of the exhibition "Getting Around Town: Four Centuries of Mapping Boston."
Ivaylo Mihalev GBH News

“What we’re trying to show is 400 years of Boston transit history,” Beaucher said. “One of the things that we’re trying to do at this exhibit is show people not only all the lines, the routes, all the infrastructure, but also how did this all relate to us as travelers, as users.”

An illustrated map of what is now Eastern Massachusetts.
A 1639 map, part of the exhibition Getting Around Town: Four Centuries of Mapping Boston at the Boston Public Library's Leventhal Map & Education Center.
William Wood Mapping Boston Collection, Boston Public Library

Beaucher points to an old map of the Orange Line, showing how it was relocated from its original, elevated route along Washington Street to the Southwest Corridor in the 1980s in an effort to improve service.

The decision to relocate the line came with consequences for the community that used it.

“They took the Orange Line from a community that was well-served by rapid transit since 1901,” he said.

The route that was taken away brought people downtown from parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, areas with with relatively lower household incomes and larger Black populations. Today, Beaucher says, it’s replaced by the Silver Line from Downtown to Nubian Square.

“The Silver Line is what became the replacement, but that’s not of equal value, that’s not a separated rapid transit line,” he said. “That’s a bus, still running in the street. Yes, it’s got some bus lanes. But it’s a bus. And that community is still waiting for an adequate replacement, which they were promised.”

Stacy Thompson, executive director of transit advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance, said it’s an example of transit redlining.

“Folks there were told that the Silver Line would be an equivalent service. It obviously is not,” Thompson said. “It’s one of the most classic examples of rail being taken out of a primarily Black and brown community. And then the new rail structure that has been built has increasingly seen gentrification and increased white ownership around that line.”

A black-and-white aerial shot of train tracks.
This is a view of the unused elevated railway structure along the waterfront and snow-covered rooftops in Boston, Mass., in 1941.
Associated Press

It’s an issue that resonates with many T riders, like Barbara Burns at Mattapan Station, the terminus of the trolley that goes from Ashmont Station in Dorchester to Mattapan Square.

“I think the service in certain demographics in Boston are lacking a little bit,” Burns said, noting that improvements are usually focused in wealthier areas.

On top of inequities, Burns said safety and funding for the T are also concerns for her. A recent poll conducted by Mass Inc., a nonprofit think tank based in Boston, found that 70% of former and current riders have felt unsafe while using the transit system.

And the agency is also facing budget problems, saying it needs more than $24 billion to fix its aging infrastructure.

“What’s going happen to people in the city, especially in this area?” Burns asked. “They’re gonna cut certain bus routes, you’re gonna find yourself having to walk a couple of blocks just to catch a bus.”

Another rider, Sandra Howard, chimed in with what she thinks about the T’s service.

“She’s right,” Howard said. “Awful. Just horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible. It’s been awful because of the tracks. It’s been going on for, like she said, for decades. Passing a buck. All they’ve been doing is passing a buck. Now you can’t pass it anymore.”

Despite its funding problems, the T is working to improve its service with a series of shutdowns and maintenance work planned over the next year to get rid of slow zones.

Still, Burns and Howard want more from the agency, with a focus on underserved areas like Dorchester and Mattapan and an increase in community meetings and transparency.

But despite it all, Howard said things will get better — that nearly 400 years after the start of public transit in Boston, an exhibit like the one on display at the library could some day include a brighter future.

“It will get better, it will,” Howard said. “We might have to pay little more, but it will get better eventually.”